For Whites Only

“For whites only.” I stood there and looked at the faded, crude, handwritten sign above the algae covered drinking fountain. As I looked around, the fountain didn’t really look out of place in the Fort Myers auto parts store in the 1960’s. Everything there was dirty, old and outdated. But that sign… I didn’t understand it.

As I watched the scenery go by on the long ride home back to Bonita with my father, I had a lot of questions. “What’s the difference what color you are when it comes to drinking out of a fountain? I saw the guys that worked at that place… what’s makes them think they’re so special?” My dad just kept his eyes on the road in front of him. “That’s just the way some people think and I suppose it’s their fountain.” I stuck my hand out the window and felt the warm summer air go by. “Well… it’s not right. I’ll sure never drink out of it!” My dad looked over at me. “Yeah? Well, I guess it just depends on how thirsty you are.”

Although my father was born and raised in the south, I can never remember him saying or doing anything particularly prejudiced. He basically put all people into two categories… people who owed him money (not good) and people who paid him money (good). So, my sister, brother and I grew up relatively free of any parental pressure to be prejudice. I don’t think this was an intentional lesson… it was more of a collateral one.

Decades later, prior to my son Nick getting his first tattoo, he asked me what I thought. I shrugged, “It’s up to you son, but people are going to judge you for what you look like, not for who you really are.” Nicks eyebrow rose, “But that’s not right Dad… that’s prejudice!” I nodded, “Yep… that’s prejudice, but generally, that’s what people do. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just telling you that when people don’t really know you, they instinctively fill in the blanks themselves.” Nick shook his head. “Well, that’s the problem of the people doing the judging, not the guy with the tattoo!” Then my eyebrows rose, “Yeah? Well… I guess that depends on how badly you want a job!”

My twin sons’ disdain for prejudice was first brought to my attention at a third grade parent teacher conference. The teacher was in near hysterics for what seemed like a solid ten minutes explaining how she was having such a hard time getting my sons to pay attention. “I’ll be talking right to them telling them what they have to do and right while I’m talking to them… THEY JUST START DRAWING PICTURES!” Both of her elbows dropped to the table and she cradled her head in her hands. “I mean… do you have this problem with them at home too?” I blinked my eyes a couple of times, shook my head and then said. “Uhhh… I’m sorry. What were you saying?” True story.

Anyway, once she calmed down, she told me that “on the plus side” when it came to who they made friends or socialized with Nick and Neil were oblivious to ethnicity or any of the usual learned social or economic prejudices that can begin manifesting themselves in elementary school. This was good news for two reasons… my kids were obviously socially well adjusted and relatively free of a problem that has plagued the human race for millennia and… I had just been handed an opportunity to get the heck out of that meeting! I slammed my hands on the table, smiled and stood up abruptly. “Well that’s FANTASTIC!” The teacher’s mouth was hanging open as I grabbed her hand and shook it. “Thank you so much for calling me with this great news!” As I turned and headed out of the door I called over my shoulder. “Come on boys… say goodbye to your teacher!”…. “Boys?… Boys?… BOYS!”

Sixteen Crayons

Out of paper!  I got up from my desk and snagged a brand new legal pad from the storage closet.  As I fanned through the crisp new leaves, I was struck by the familiar smell of fresh ink and paper.  I smiled.  The first day of school! The beginning of another school year meant new things.   New paper, new pencils, a notebook, clothes… Everything was different, even me.  I was taller, skinnier, my ears were bigger and my hair shorter.

Fourth grade was Mrs. O’Conner’s class at Bonita Springs Elementary.  She was tough I heard… so I wanted to be ready.  My Mom had taken me to the department store and I had filled the required supply list enthusiastically… except for the crayons.  A box of 16 is what was “required,” but then there on the shelf was the new “Crayola” box of 64… with a built in sharpener!  Being a budding artist, I saw no point in limiting myself to 16 colors, but my mother said Ms. O’Conner had other ideas and she placed the puny box in the cart.  As I rode home, sulking next to my mom, I tried to think of a reason that someone would even create a rule that limits how many crayons you could have.  I finally blurted out.  “I just don’t get it…Are you sure it’s a rule?  I mean, it sounds like a suggestion, because why would she make it a rule?  Does she think having too many colors will confuse kids?  Shouldn’t we be able to color whatever color we want?”  My mom rolled her eyes. “Look, I don’t know why it’s a rule… it’s just a rule, OK?” I looked out the window with my arms crossed, watching the water filled ditch next to the Tamiami Trail go by.  I mumbled.  “Well it’s a pretty stupid rule.”  My mom just stared straight ahead and drove a little faster.  Apparently I would have to argue my case to the teacher.

The next morning I was on my way to school, with a new “crew cut”, complete with a single butch-waxed tuft of hair on my otherwise barren head, a huge brand new pair of dark blue jeans that “had room enough for me to grow into” (they fit great now!) and my new school supplies, including 16 stupid crayons.  On the bus, as we were all comparing our supplies and I was taking a ribbing for my disproportionate head to ear ratio, I noticed that one of the boys had the 64 pack of Crayons.  “Arrrgh!” I yelled grabbing at the hair on top of my head that I still don’t have.  “You can’t have those!  You’re supposed to get the 16 pack Joey!” Joey shrugged as he put them away.  “They’re just crayons man.” I looked at him like he had two heads.  “What? You don’t care?”  “Nope.” said Joey casually shrugging.  I sized Joey up for a second and then instinct kicked in and I became… my father!   “Okay Joey.  But, how do you feel about… IRON MAN!”  And I pulled out a brand new comic book from my note book.  “Whoa!” said every boy on the bus.  (I’d seen my dad “horse trade” in the store hundreds of times.) I dangled the comic by one corner.  “Joey, I’ll trade you this comic book and my box of crayons for your box of crayons.” Joey jumped at the deal, which made us both happy.   Now all I had to do was to convince Mrs. O’Connor.

For days I waited for my opportunity to argue for “crayon freedom” and then finally as she was slowly circling the room inspecting our work, Mrs. O’Connor stopped at my desk.  I kept coloring, looking down, my giant box of Crayons sticking out like a sore thumb on the top of my desk.  “Nice job Benny.” she said.  (Wow, I’m in the clear!) I thought and then she tapped gently on the crayon box.  “Are these the Crayons you traded with Joey for?” I turned slowly and glared at Joey who was slouched in his chair, his face red as a beet.

Although my interpretation of Mrs. O’Conner’s “guidelines” had been correct, Joey’s parents apparently didn’t attach the same value to “Iron Man” as their son.  So, I ended up with a dog-eared comic and a box of 14 blunt and broken crayons.  My parents weren’t exactly happy, but they must have had some appreciation for my impassioned argument, because I finally got a brand new box of 64 crayons.

Sweet Crayon Freedom!

Just What the Doctor Ordered

waverunner2I know that waverunners make you angry, buzzing noisily around your boat while you’re trying to fish or flying back and forth past your favorite relaxing sunbathing spot, but I will make you a bet… no matter how much you hate them, as soon as you get on one, open up the throttle and go skipping across the waves you will automatically smile.  It’s a complex phenomenon called… fun.  I know, I know!  They are evil, stinky, dangerous, devil machines that many people think should be outlawed… but I’m just saying, they are fun and will make the meanest old poop grin like an eight year old.  And there in lies the problem.  They also have a tendency to make you act like an eight year old.  Case in point. Continue reading